New Year’s, Japanese Style

Trade in your champagne for sake

It’s the time of year for champagne, streamers, and hangovers. Or not. After years of popping open the bubbly and nibbling on this and that, celebrating New Year’s has become predictable. And shouldn’t you welcome the new year with some good luck?

While Westerners are busy running around in silly hats and tooting on noisemakers, the Japanese are engaging in a multiday celebration known as Oshogatsu. The festivities are based in Shinto customs but have become mainstream (and secularized) throughout the years. Two traditions anchor the celebration, both of which are said to bring good luck. The first is breaking open a cask of sake, and the second is mochitsuki, the preparation of glutinous rice cakes called mochi. Mochi dishes are part of the raft of traditional New Year’s foods, collectively called osechi ryori, that are shared with friends.

What’s Mochi?

Mochi is eaten year-round in Japan, but it’s a centerpiece of the New Year’s celebration. Glutinous rice, also called mochi, is pounded in a large mortar and pestle (respectively known as an usu and a kine) to make mochi dough, which is formed into flat rice cakes. Mochi can be sweet (like in ice cream desserts) or savory (as in most of the recipes here). And once formed into cakes, it can be boiled, toasted, or broiled and served plain or floated in soups. We’ve developed recipes for a handful of the most common dishes made over New Year’s—and added in mochi ice cream for good measure (a little ice cream never hurt anyone’s prospects for a good new year)—for a taste of the Japanese celebration.

Where can you get mochi if you aren’t flying to Japan in the next few days or you don’t live near a Shinto temple with experts who will make it for you? On the left side of the Pacific, the Japanese buy preprepared mochi or use a rice steamer to form their own. We like a simpler solution: the microwave. Buy some glutinous rice flour (we prefer the Koda Farms Mochiko Blue Star brand) at your local Asian market, and let the microwave do all the hard work—details are in our Basic Savory Mochi recipe. But know that what you gain in convenience you lose in texture: Microwaved mochi is slightly grainy. (A trade-off we can deal with if it means not having to risk our hands in the mochi-pounding process like these guys.)

Some people eat the snacks, soup, and porridge all together as a meal, while others eat them à la carte. Our recipes serve four and can be made ahead of time. So once you’ve got the mochi-making process down, the rest is low-stress—great for helping you enter the New Year in a Zen-like frame of mind.

Happy New Year! Don’t Die.

Each New Year, dozens of Japanese (usually elderly) are hospitalized from choking on glutinous mochi. In January 2007, the Japan Times reported the deaths of four men. Sixteen other people were taken to the hospital.

It’s all too tempting to sink one’s teeth into a soft, round pillow of mochi floating in a warm, fragrant liquid, or to bite into a crisp, hot rectangle of mochi right off the grill, freshly dipped in kinako. But some mochi enthusiasts forget that after that initial mouthful, they need to pay attention to what they’re eating in order to safely get the sticky mass down.

Japanese food writer Emi Kazuko recommends a cautious approach. “Just bite a small piece at a time, and don’t chew it much,” advises Kazuko, author of the award-winning Japanese Food and Cooking. “Just once or twice, then swallow.”

And if your appetite overrules good sense? Your Health Encyclopedia (Japanese-language only), a leading Japanese online medical reference, says that sucking out stuck mochi using a vacuum cleaner (as seen famously in Tampopo) is actually an effective way to remove the offending rice cake. Because mochi is so sticky, the Heimlich maneuver doesn’t work very well. —Tara Shioya


To pay tribute to the cask of sake that’s broken open during the celebration, we spoke to an expert for some sake pairings. Plus: watch our Sake Obsessive video.

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